Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants by Al Weiwei, translated and curated by Lee Ambrozy. (MIT Press: London £12.98)

Dissidents in China are all-too-often unknown in their home country. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo last autumn, most of his fellow countrymen had no idea who he was. But Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist imprisoned earlier this month, has a measure of public prominence in China because of his art that is often denied to purely political protesters – making his sudden disappearance all the more alarming

With Ai behind bars it is worth asking what he means to China’s laobaixing, or the average man on the street. He first became known in the early 1990s for directing a hit television drama called Beijingers in New York, partly set in his own East Village apartment. Subsequently both art and architecture brought him to prominence, including his role advising on the construction of the Bird’s Nest stadium used during Beijing’s 2008 Olympics.

But it was on his blog that Ai’s mix of art criticism, social commentary and political vitriol began to coalesce – and attract followers. It is timely, therefore, that MIT Press has recently released this volume bringing together his blog writings between 2006 and 2009, and illuminating the intellectual journey that made Ai one of the fiercest critics of China’s regime at a time of growing repression. They make for powerful reading, especially at a time when Ai is unable to speak for himself.

Born in 1957, Ai grew up during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Like many of his generation, he received limited formal education. Indeed, until he started blogging, Ai had no writing experience at all, making his work even more remark­able. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous pre-revolutionary poet – and glints of this shine through in Ai Weiwei’s writing too. In one passage, China’s search for commodities is said to show “all the charm of a famished beast”; in another, on a plane, the back of an airsickness bag is a “suit­able place for purging one’s mind”.

His venom grows over the years, as his artistic convictions drive him to political conclusions. “Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential,” he writes, while “a country that rejects truth, refuses change, and lacks a spirit of freedom is hopeless”.

Often, Ai is fixated on the cruelty and toll on human dignity he sees around him. Each year, 40,000 workers in southern China lose fingers in machinery accidents, he points out in one post. In another, he writes about helping to rescue a warehouse full of abused cats and concludes that the Chinese people will forever lack the respect for other forms of life.

The theme that most propels him, however, concerns the moral scar of authoritarianism: “The feeling of helplessness under totalitarianism is the abduction of human morals. Terror doesn’t come from ruthless brutality; terror results from submitting to this ruthlessness.”

When the Olympics come to town, Ai sees only the imposition of the will of the state upon the people. The opening ceremony is “offensive noise pollution” and an “encyclopedia of human subjugation”.

Out of these beliefs emerged the project that eventually was to see his blog shut down. After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai recruited a team of online volunteers to compile a list of the students who died in substandard school buildings. “Who will answer for China the question of exactly how many students died as a result of these tofu-dregs [poorly constructed] schools?”

It seems a simple question, but the authorities do not see it that way. In the posts that follow, as the police start visiting his house and culling his bank statements, he also first contemplates the possibility of being sent to prison.

“I’m ready,” he writes on May 28 2009, after multiple police visits. “Or rather, there’s nothing to get ready for. One person. That is everything that I have, it is all that someone might possibly gain and everything that I can devote. I will not hesitate in the time of need, and I won’t be vague.” He concludes with a suggestion for the police: “Don’t come looking for me again. I won’t co-operate. If you must come, bring your instruments of torture with you.”

His eventual detention underlines how far politics has now shifted in Beijing. Ai began blogging in 2006 as a celebrity guest of Sina, the Chinese internet company; today comments about him on microblogs are rapidly deleted.

But it was Ai himself who saw the even simpler logic behind his fate: “They are fragile enough to believe that one dissenting voice could bring down their mighty force.”

The writer is an FT correspondent in Beijing

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